Though patches of wild onions, known as ramps, may appear thick and widespread for plucking each spring in Appalachia, West Virginia University experts caution overharvesting is a threat in many locations.
Melissa Marra, associate professor of nutritional sciences at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and WVU Extension agents Alex Coffman, Joshua Peplowski and Brian Sparks are encouraging ramp hunters to harvest sustainably and explaining the importance of conserving this unique species.
“Ramps are also known as wild leeks and are native to West Virginia. They belong to the lily family, so they are a close relative of onion and garlic. Foliage develops quickly into flat, green leaves that are two inches wide and eight inches long at maturity. Once deciduous trees begin to canopy, the leaves of the ramps quickly disappear, but the bulb, just like an onion, remains in the soil. By this time, harvest has been completed in most areas of West Virginia. In the summer, the ramp will flower with three sepals and three petals and produce seeds. Once it’s bloomed, it goes dormant and reactivates when spring comes.
“Since we know how a ramp reproduces, we can take a few precautions when we harvest. One, only cut the leaf and leave the bulb to continue growing. Two, if you must have the bulb part to eat, when you are digging, leave some of the bottom of the bulb, where the roots are, in the ground so it can have some chance of growing back. Three, nurture a patch by taking just 10% of the ramps annually and leave the rest to continue maturing.” — Brian Sparks, WVU Extension agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Nicholas and Fayette counties
“Ramps, the first green plant to emerge in the spring, were traditionally eaten by Native Americans as a tonic to replenish nutrients after the winter season. In recent years, consumer demand has significantly increased due to local and wild food movements. They’re now considered a seasonal delicacy beyond their growing regions. Some estimates indicate that $15 million in ramps are sold each year in just a few weeks. The local and commercial increases in demand, coupled with the fact that the plants are slow-growing, put them in danger of being overharvested in some areas. Ramps can take up to seven years to grow to maturity from a seed. When they are harvested by taking the whole plant — root and all — before seeds are produced, they don’t grow back. One study estimated that it could take 22 years for a patch to recover when 25% of the area is harvested by foraging the whole plant. In some states like Maine, Rhode Island and Tennessee, ramps are listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as ‘plants of special concern,’ as they are vulnerable to becoming endangered.
“Traditional ways to sustainably harvest the plants were to leave the bulbs or a portion, or by taking just the one leaf from a plant. We should be conscientious about the way we harvest ramps, so they are still around for future generations to enjoy.” — Melissa Marra, associate professor, nutritional sciences, School of Agriculture and Foods, WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
“The forest gives us so much, including food. It’s no wonder they call ramps a spring tonic because nothing rings in the change of season better than sunshine and the peaking green leaves of ramps. While they have had a roller coaster of popularity over the years, West Virginians have always had a food history interlinked with ramps.
“Ramps are usually found in large patches, and they grow well in moist, shady hillsides and near deciduous trees like beech, birch and maple. Once you’ve prepared your ramps to cook, take the bulbs back outside and plant them two inches deep, and you can have your own ramp plants in a few years.
“Always be sure to be mindful of the forest as you’re foraging. Respecting the native flora and fauna ensures that it can be a good place to forage for years to come.” — Alex Coffman, 4-H Youth Development agent, WVU Extension
“Ramps are part of our heritage. It’s a ritual of spring and one that we all have ingrained in our memory as children. It doesn’t matter if you like them or hate them — ramps are part of being a West Virginian. They’re seasonal table fare, and due to their seasonality, knowing they’ll soon be gone makes people’s eyes bigger than their appetites. I see people harvest far more ramps on an excursion than they can consume in a few weeks. Ramp digging often includes a good hike or a long drive, but because they’re easy to dig, individuals may take more than they need ‘just in case.’
“Ramps will be here for generations to come if we take the steps necessary to ensure we don’t overharvest.” — Joshua Peplowski, WVU Extension agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Greenbrier County
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